Park Square Barristers Inquests Team; The right to refuse to answer questionsJudy Dawson
At the inquest touching upon the death of Poppi Worthington, the effect of Rule 22 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 was thrust into the media spotlight as her father exercised his right to refuse to answer 252 questions during the course of his evidence. Judy Dawson from the Inquests Team considers the provisions and the impact it can have upon the evidence at an Inquest and its weight.
The law; Rule 22
Rule 22 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013 states;
22(1); No witness at an inquest is obliged to answer any question tending to incriminate him or her.
22(2); Where it appears to the Coroner that a witness has been asked such a question, the Coroner must inform the witness that he or she may refuse to answer it.
Under Schedule 5 paragraph 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 the Coroner has the power to summon witnesses. Failure to attend having received such a summons is punishable as contempt of court and the witness could be committed. It is possible for a witness to apply to have the summons set aside but that cannot be on the grounds that giving evidence may self-incriminate him, nor may the witness apply for (or the Coroner grant) a blanket prohibition on any questions being asked. Whether such questions should be responded to will be a matter for assessment based on the individual question (although in reality there is likely to be some discussion about the type of questions which the witness will be excused from responding to)
The Poppi Worthington Inquest
Poppi Worthington died at the family home in unexplained circumstances on 12th December 2012. An initial inquest was held subsequent to which there was a High Court hearing in family proceedings at which the Judge concluded that shortly before her death she had been sexually abused by her Father, Paul Worthington. There was also an extremely critical investigation into the police actions following her death which had concluded that there had been a catalogue of errors and a large amount of vital evidence had been lost, such that the CPS confirmed that no criminal charges were likely to be brought. An application was made to the High Court by the Senior Coroner for Cumbria for the first inquest to be quashed and for him to open a fresh investigation and inquest which was granted, leading to a second inquest in November and December 2017. The report of the Inquest, which summarised the evidence and his reasoning as well as his conclusions, was published on 15th January 2018.
During the inquest, Paul Worthington (represented by a silk) refused to respond to 252 questions, repeating on almost all occasions that he referred the questioner to his previous response that he was exercising his right under Rule 22. The Coroner dealt with his evidence in his reasoning in this way;
I must emphasise that the entitlement to refuse to answer questions at an inquest if there is a risk of self-incrimination is an important one. Mr Worthington was quite entitle to decline to answer the questions he did and I emphasise that I draw no adverse inference against him for his decision to do so. In consequence, however, the fact is that Paul Worthington’s evidence to this inquest amounts to little more than the previous accounts and evidence he had already given elsewhere”.
“As far as Paul Worthington is concerned, as stated above, for the majority of the time he was giving evidence he exercised his rights under Rule 22. As a result it was difficult to assess his overall demeanour and his honesty. I did watch him closely during the course of questioning. He responded physically in a number of ways, and on one occasion was visibly upset and the hearing was paused for a while. In my experience people are predisposed to answer questions and when they do not do so over a prolonged period of time they are often embarrassed and behave awkwardly. In these circumstances, I concluded that I could not form any reliable view as to his honesty on the basis of his performance in the witness box. Therefore, apart from those questions he did choose to answer, I must rely on, and assess, what he has said elsewhere (and I shall return to this below)”.
In fact, the Coroner independently reached the same conclusion as the High Court Judge in the family proceedings that on the balance of probabilities Poppi had been anally penetrated in a relatively short period of time (albeit not immediately) before her death by Mr Worthington. The medical evidence was almost overwhelming on that point. He went on to rule out the possibility of such penetration directly causing or contributing to her death, but found that she had then been placed in an unsafe sleeping position in the bed with Mr Worthington and as a result her breathing was compromised and she died. He was able to rule out the various earlier accounts given by Mr Worthington, both on the basis that the same were highly unlikely and had significant factual discrepancies therein, and that he had provided different and contradictory accounts. Significantly he had been unable to explain the presence of various items which were in the bedroom at the time that the police photographs were taken which would indicate that Poppi, her bottle, and her sleep comforter had all been brought into the bed.
Poppi’s Mother walked out seemingly in a state of anger and distress as her ex-partner refused to answer question after question about what had happened to Poppi whilst he had been with her. It is understandable that she would react in that way. It can seem to significantly undermine the whole fact-finding purpose of an Inquest if one or more of the most crucial witnesses can evade questioning, particularly if the Coroner then is bound not to draw an adverse inference from such refusal to respond. The exercise of such right will in most cases lead to distress and upset from the deceased’s family combined with a sense that the witness has something to hide and that the Coroner’s attempts to establish the truth of what has happened is being thwarted.
However the right against self-incrimination is a fundamental right in UK law; just as a Defendant in a criminal trial does not have to give evidence, a witness in an Inquest (who can be compelled to attend) is protected by way of Rule 22. The handling of both the making of applications to ensure witnesses obtain such protection, and the opposition to such protection being extended to beyond that which it should, needs to be both professional and sensitive.
The Poppi Worthington case is an extreme one which has excited much media interest and criticism because Rule 22 seems to have given protection to a father who had sexually abused his daughter and then refused to explain the circumstances by which she died in his sole presence. There were shouts of “outrageous” when Counsel for the Police Federation indicated at the Pre-Inquest Review Hearing for the Hillsborough Inquest indicated that some police witnesses might also exercise that right. In many cases however, Rule 22 can be utilised in a sensitive and cautious manner, with each individual question being properly analysed to see if requiring a response would offend against the rule against self-incrimination, allowing the Inquest to properly balance the interests of everybody concerned.
The Park Square Barristers Inquests Team has a wealth of experience (including two practitioners who also sit as Assistant Coroners) in representing families and Interested Persons at Inquests and Inquiries. Such require outstanding advocacy and highly sensitive people skills.
Please contact Madeleine Gray as the specialist Inquests Team clerk to discuss the appropriate practitioner depending on the particular circumstances on 0113 2028603